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December 2017

The Democratic Message for 2018

The conventional wisdom has weighed in and found the Democrats of 2018 lacking a core message. The CW holds that Trump may be unpopular but the Democrats have to do more than just be against Donald Trump. The problem, according to the pundits spewing this uniformly accepted and supposedly obvious truth, is that Democrats just don't know what they should run on to motivate their base, attract new voters, and (hopefully) depress Republican turnout.

Just a few of many examples of this conventional wisdom suffice to illustrate the point:

  • This roundtable from NPR (warning the Democrats against even mentioning Trump's name, advice normally provided only when a President is popular, not when the incumbent has historically low approval numbers); 
  • This Washington Post opinion piece (fretting that the Democrats might run on promising to "undo the opportunity and security that comes from a good Republican-produced economy," as if the Democrats would ever frame the issue that way);
  • This CNN piece from the king of conventional wisdom, Chris Cillizza (noting that the Republicans succeeded in making their mid-term elections a referendum on Obama but wondering if the Democrats can do the same with Trump); and
  • This PBS piece (no round-up of conventional wisdom would be complete without checking in with PBS, which takes us on an obligatory trip to an Obama/Trump district--this one includes Radar O'Riley's home town of Waterloo, Iowa--where we are told the Democrats have four candidates with four different messages and no one knows what will resonate with voters).

I call bullshit. The Democrats have a message and it is this:

Donald Trump and his GOP Are the Party of Cruelty, Crime, and Corruption.

The Democrats Are the Party of Competence, Compassion, and Courage.

The contrast is clear. Now, I recognize I am bucking the conventional wisdom here, and I am fully aware of the Democrats' unmatched ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. But for the first time in my living memory, the Republicans, led by their sociopathic Mobster-in-Chief, have given the Democrats a message that can fit on a bumper sticker, along with talking points that work in 10-second sound bites, and this past week have added indelible images that Democrats can use from here to election day to portray the Republicans--accurately--as lacking in empathy and basic human decency.

The Republicans have also steadfastly refused to condemn any of the rampant corruption taking place daily by multiple members of the Trump Cabinet, the Trump family, and Trump himself. And through their continuing baseless attacks on Robert Mueller, Rod Rosenstein, the FBI, the DOJ, and the intelligence community they have undermined the rule of law and made the Democrats the defenders of the Constitution and federal law enforcement. This gives Democrats openings they don't usually have on issues that are traditionally Republican strengths.

Public-opinion polls reveal that the top seven issues of concern to potential voters across the political spectrum are, in order:

  1. Health Care
  2. Guns
  3. Immigration
  4. The economy
  5. The DC "swamp"
  6. Trump's record
  7. The environment

Of all these issues, the Republicans had a significant advantage only on immigration. I say "had" because after the last week's events, the Republicans may have ceded that issue to Democrats as well. And recent polling suggests that those events may have vaulted immigration to the top of the list of issues voters care about (obviously, things can change again between now and November). Likewise, the issue of guns (long a Republican wedge issue) has turned more favorable for the Democrats.

The Democratic strategy is not muddled and it's not complicated. All they need to do (and the candidates I am following are doing this every day) is show how on each of the specific issues people care about, the Republican policies represent cruelty, crime, or corruption while the Democratic policies represent compassion, competence, or courage. Let's examine each of the six issues voters tell pollsters they care about and see how the Democratic message might work to excite their base, encourage new voters, and turn people off to the Republicans.

1. On Health Care: The GOP wants to eliminate CHIP, slash Medicaid, do nothing to improve the VA, strip protections for pre-existing conditions, increase the number of uninsured, do nothing to control Rx drug costs, all while premiums skyrocket. The Democrats want to protect CHIP, shore up and expand Medicaid, go after the folks like Martin Skrelli (to whom the GOP gave tax cuts), preserve the best parts of Obamacare (such as portability and protection for those with pre-existing conditions), reform and improve the VA, and move toward some form of Medicare for All/Universal health insurance.

The message is clear: Republicans are cruel. They want to eliminate health insurance for poor kids, stop the expansion of Medicaid and slash the budget for it, cut Medicare, and gut the popular parts of the Affordable Care Act, such as the pre-existing conditions protections that are, for many people, quite literally the difference between life and death. Health care provides a stark "cruelty versus compassion" contrast that Democrats can, should, and I believe will use to their advantage. 

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2. On Guns: The Republican policies are cruel and callous. How many dead children will we have to see pulled out of our nation's schools, churches, movie theaters, and shopping malls before the Republicans will see gun violence as a crisis in need of a legislative response? The GOP's "solution" to the problem (to the extent they even recognize there is a problem) is  more guns, including in schools and churches. The GOP opposes banning the AR-15 or placing any limitations whatsoever on ammunition sales, magazine size, etc. The GOP opposes closing the gun-show loophole, increasing background checks, imposing any liability on gun manufacturers, or doing anything at all to even attempt to address the problem of gun violence in the USA.

Democrats, meanwhile, support common-sense gun reforms, as do most people, including all sane people. The lock that the extremists in the Russia-backed National Rifle Association have on the Republican Party is finally coming back to haunt them. Republicans oppose even the most basic and non-controversial reforms backed by large majorities of the people. Democrats could, of course, overplay their hand, but as long as they keep the focus on the Republicans' extreme "more guns is the only solution" position, they have a winning issue that is actually motivating new voters to register and vote Democrat. Americans are sick and tired of thoughts and prayers. They want action. They are sick and tired of being told there is nothing we can do, or that it is "too soon" to talk about it, or that reasonable policies aimed at reducing gun violence are somehow an assault on "freedom." Americans are tired of seeing pictures like this (Democrats want to stop it; Republicans don't care enough to want to change anything):

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3. On Immigration: The Republican policies are cruel. The GOP supports ripping babes from their asylum-seeking mothers desperately trying to escape death and torture in war-torn areas. The GOP wants more of that, not less. The GOP supports separating families at the border and sending kids to concentration camps, and wants more of it not less. The Republicans are now proposing to arrest and expel from the country people on the mere suspicion that they are here illegally, and to do so without due process (i.e., with "no judges or court cases"). The GOP also supports spending billions on a stupid wall that will have no appreciable effect on illegal immigration (which has been going down in recent years anyway). Trump ended DACA, and the GOP-controlled Congress refuses to restore it despite public opinion overwhelmingly supporting protecting Dreamers who have lived here virtually their whole lives and are contributing to society. Why? Because Donald Trump refused to sign any immigration bill that did not severely curtail legal immigration from what he viewed as "shithole countries."

Again, the message is clear: Democrats believe in secure borders and deporting felons, but also that legal immigration has long been a net positive for the country. The Democrats would pass the DREAM Act of 2017 and the Keep Families Together Act 0f 2018. The Democrats would reform or abolish ICE, hire more immigration judges, restore public funding for programs providing legal representation to those in need, and enact additional reforms that respect the dignity and worth of all human beings while simultaneously securing our borders against infiltration by the small number of border crossers engaging in criminal activity. The Democrats' program is realistic, inclusive, compassionate, and constitutional. It is possible to stand both for the integrity of our national borders and the dignity of all our fellow humans.

For years, this will be the image people associate with Trump's Republican party:

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4. On the Economy: the GOP enacted a tax cut favoring the top 0.1% of the country, which has already exploded the deficit and will add trillions to the national debt. The GOP now wants to use its own fiscal profligacy as an excuse to cut Social Security, Medicare, CHIP, and other social programs to address the nation's red-stained balance sheet. The Democrats would undo at least a portion of the tax cuts and use that money to reduce the deficit and shore up Social Security and Medicare. The Democrats would not give tax cuts to millionaires and billionaires and then cut social programs the poor and middle class depend on in order to pay for them.

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Although some of the economic news is still about as good as it was when Obama left office (low unemployment, inflation under control, low interest rates, a continuing bull market in stocks that started in 2009), wages for most workers have not kept up with inflation, and Republicans never talk about wages. The Republican solution to low wages is tax cuts for billionaires and corporations that are supposed to then "trickle down" to average folks. Republican lawmakers exhibit a callous indifference to the plight of workers facing increasing health-care premiums and prescription costs, housing shortages, rising college tuition, and the like. Democrats support increasing protections for workers, an increase in the minimum wage, and tax policies that benefit a majority of Americans and not just the top 0.1%. And they have a jobs plan.  

5. and 7. On the Environment and the "Swamp": The Republicans are corrupt. From Ben Carson's $31,000 dining table to Wilbur Ross shorting a stock when a reporter tipped him off to a negative story that would soon be published to Tom Price, Ryan Zinke, and David Shulkin using government aircraft for private business, the Trump Cabinet has been a veritable smorgasbord of corruption (and I haven't even mentioned Trump's emoluments problems or Jared and Ivanka's blatant self-dealing).

But in Scott Pruitt, the GOP has put perhaps the most-corrupt man ever to hold a Cabinet position (and that is saying something) in charge of the EPA. He is wholly owned by corporate polluters and has been engaged in an environmental blitzkrieg to undo, reverse, and destroy environmental protections for our air, land, and water. The Democrats are for clean air, land, and water. This ought to be bipartisan but oddly isn't. Republicans are proud to stand on the side of polluters. Democrats want the citizenry to be healthy and be able to drink clean water and not choke on polluted air. In this, Scott Pruitt hits the trifecta: he is at once cruel, corrupt, and criminal. Pruitt is currently the subject of 15 different federal investigations into his conduct. And yet, the Republicans in Congress have done nothing to hold him to account. Trump stands by him, and the GOP stands by Trump. No clearer example of Trump's failure to keep his promise to "drain the swamp" exists--Pruitt not only represents the metaphorical swamp, he is enacting policies that literally poison our air, land, and water. 

6. On Trump's Record: Here, perhaps, I have some agreement with the conventional wisdom. I don't think Democrats should focus on Trump to the exclusion of the other issues addressed above. But the reality is there is no avoiding Trump. What they should not do is get dragged into Trump's daily hijacking of the news cycle with his endlessly distracting tweets. Democrats should, instead, focus on Trump's personal cruelty, criminality, and corruption that he has exhibited from the time he announced his run to the present day. And they should focus on how his cruelty, criminality, and corruption have influenced the policies his administration and the GOP-led Congress have enacted, and how those policies are harming the nation. On this, I think most of the Democrats on the ground are doing just that. There is a disconnect between the political-pundit class, the members of which spend their days on Twitter and switching the TV between Hannity, Tapper, and Maddow, and the Democratic candidates and campaign volunteers knocking on doors and phone-banking who are talking to real voters (and prospective voters) face to face every day. The punditocracy thinks the Democrats don't have a message because they talk to high-level Democratic operatives based in DC and New York who thought they were going to be working in the West Wing and instead have spent the last 18 months going from one cable-TV green room to another. 

The idea that the Democrats have no message for the 2018 elections is silly. The message is simple: the GOP does not represent America; we do. If you are a rich racist sociopath vote GOP. Anyone else, go with the Democrats. It's an easy message to convey. And Democratic candidates in race after race are conveying it, winning seat after seat back from the GOP despite the lack of favorable media coverage and GOP gerrymandering, voter suppression, and illegal foreign interference on the GOP's behalf from their sinister overseas co-conspirators.

The Democratic message is clear. It is loud. And it is resonating. 

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